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Transitioning From High School to College: What Students With Learning Differences Need to Succeed

Transitioning From High School to College: What Students With Learning Differences Need to Succeed
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Jules Csillag September 4, 2014

The transition from high school to college is a big step for anyone. Here is an in-depth guide on what students with learning disabilities will need for a great transition to college.

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According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 4.8 percent of public school students have a Specific Learning Disability. Unfortunately, by the time you look at high school graduation rates, the percentage is likely lower, largely due to high dropout rates for this population (although it’s improving).

But what if your child had support and succeeded in not only graduating from high school, but also and getting into college? How can you help her succeed then?

The Law and the Logistics

The most notable change is that in college. The onus ends up being on the student and the family to disclose a student’s learning needs, since colleges cannot legally ask you about your disability. In addition, “p]arents and their sons and daughters do not always realize that the law that governs the special accommodations provided in high school [(Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA)] does not continue to represent the college student," notes the [Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.

In college, the American Disabilities Act (ADA) takes over as the legal support for services. “U]nder the ADA, colleges are required to provide fair and reasonable accommodations (reasonable is defined as anything that doesn’t alter the nature of the program) for any student who qualifies. Schools can and do interpret the law differently and they provide varied responses to meet the requirements," [notes the mother of a student with dyslexia.

Moreover, “most college professors are not trained in setting up environments for optimal learning," notes Samantha Feinman, director of New Frontiers in Learning, an organization that specializes in providing high quality education and learning support services to high schoolers and college students. Indeed, many professors are not trained teachers or instructors, and more often than not, they do not have training working with students with learning differences.

Tips for Success

  • Beef up your child’s academic foundations. Ms. Feinman noted “academic foundations" as being one of the strongest predictors of success in college. “No matter what subject they will be studying, they will need to decode, read fluently, comprehend text, and respond in writing."

  • College isn’t magic! Whatever supports your child benefited from in high school, will likely help them succeed in college as well. Whether it’s extended time, an accordion folder, or a math or executive functions tutor, aim to have those supports in place. Don’t know where to turn? Every college and university has an office of disability services, and they should be able to guide you towards resources they can provide, or make recommendations for external supports.

  • “General Independence" was another strong predictor of college success that Ms. Feinman identified. Especially if students go away to college, in order to succeed, they will need to have practical life skills like doing laundry, using an ATM card, and practicing daily hygiene. Once again, start early and teach these skills in high school; but there’s also nothing wrong with creating visual supports and/or checklists.

  • Social communication and self-advocacy are also incredibly important. Social communication is vital for group work that happens at colleges, but it is also essential that students become comfortable with asking for help from their peers and professors. Self-advocacy includes realizing what you need, then following through on acquiring it. That could mean going to the school’s writing center or asking a professor to make slides available online, students do best when they can advocate for their learning needs. Review this Self-Advocacy and Self-Assessment Guide to learn about self-advocacy, fill out the high school checklist (which is applicable for college, too), and make an action plan with clear, attainable goals.

  • Use the summer. Some colleges, nearby special education schools, or learning support services offer summer skills-building courses. For example, New Frontiers in Learning{: target="-blank"} has a summer college readiness summer program. This 10-day workshop, which is a partnership between Landmark College and Winston Preparatory School, also speaks to the high need for these types of services.

  • To learn more, the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity has a number of articles and tips, including articles about extended time, parent’s perspective, and most helpfully, “Advice for a College Student."


CanLearn Society (2013). Self-Advocacy. Retrieved from: CanLearn Society.

Cortiella, C. (2013). Diplomas At Risk: A Critical Look at the Graduation Rate of Students with Learning Disabilities. National Center for Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from NCLD.

Feinman, S., personal communication, July 30, 2014. Redford, K. Mother Worry: Academic Support Away from Home. Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Retrieved from: YCDC.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). Digest of Education Statistics, 2012 (NCES 2014-015), Chapter 2. Retrieved from: IES.

York, J. Advice for the College Student. Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Retrieved from: YCDC.